Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Billa and jaggery highways

The cauldron was gigantic. It was large enough to cook a spread to feed a village. Two men constantly stirred the content inside it, which boiled frantically letting off thick, sticky vapour. A posse of men in all sizes—from children to granddads—were busy in various related activity. The content continued to bubble and occasionally someone or the other would come by to take a look at it and announce a progress report.

After nearly two hours, the men in charge of stirring put their ladles aside. As if one cue, most business around came to a standstill. Everyone began crowding around the cauldron. Some watched, some participated as the vessel was hurriedly lifted off the fire and taken to a platform that held a large wooden tray. Within moments, a glowing golden-brown viscous liquid was speedily eased onto the tray. Almost immediately a young boy swung into action, giving the molten a vigorous final whisk to smoothen out any traces of unevenness. Following that it was allowed to firm up for a few minutes.

It was still hot and semi-solid when spoonfuls were scooped from the tray and placed on a dry slab. One of the men picked up a bite size and felt it in his hand before popping it in his mouth. He gave a thumbs-up sign. Smiles appeared on faces all around. Sweetly-delicious, melt-in-the-mouth gur or jaggery had just passed the perfection test. It was ready to be laid on sale. For the men, it was time to get back to work to prepare some more gur.

Drive down the highways of Punjab in winters and the picturesque pastoral vista gets an added aromatic dimension. Alongside canary-hued carpets of mustard fields, little straw sheds prop up, beneath which bucolic pace picks up a new velocity, as day-long a clique of skilled hands get busy in preparing that sweet something called gur. Its sharp, overpowering whiff fills the air and that’s enough to lift the foot off the accelerator and push the brake pedal. You can’t manoeuvre past fresh-off-the-fire gur and not pick up a few kilos. It’s just not done. The numbers of vehicles lined up at these roadside vends affirm that.

Jhanjheri village, en route Fatehgarh district in Punjab, is where I turned off the ignition. The scent of gur had played its part. It remains the best advert for its makers. Half-a dozen sheds stood alongside and I was among a host of others inspecting the gur on offer. We were being handed chunks of gur merely for taste. Remember this was Punjab, the land of the large-hearted. Here they don’t believe in pint size quantities in matters of food. They relish the fact that you have relished their fare. Whether you purchase or not is another story. By the time I reached the last shed I had tasted all sort of gur—plain, semi-molten, with masala (fennel seeds and spices), with dry fruits and as shakkar, its crystalline-grainy variant. They all seemed good except one that was a little dusty in taste.

What stationed me at Billa’s stall was the fact that his gur was just a few minutes away from being removed from the fire. I preferred buying fresh stock for people back home and for the many who would drop by and demand their share. Billa was all of 19 years but had been part of the gur business ever since he was a child. He proudly informed his gur was the best for miles. “My patrons will confirm that,” he beamed. Named Shakeel Mohammed by his parents, his friends and customers began identifying him as Billa or the cat-eyed one, a common moniker in this part of the country for anyone born with green eyes. The nickname has stuck on and “Billa’s gur” is hugely in demand in these parts of the state.

As is the tradition, his complete family is involved in gur making, which is a multi-layered process. Trucks loaded with sugarcane arrive every morning. Then begins the process of squeezing juice, which is set to boil in the cauldrons. While one group attends to the production and sales work, the backroom boys deal with leftover sugarcane which is spread out in fields to dry, to be later used as fuel to fire mud ovens that prepare gur.

Though it doesn’t look so on the face of it, jaggery units like that of Billa’s are an industry in themselves, with quite a turnover. Indulging in elementary arithmetic threw up some interesting figures. Around 5,000 kg or 50 quintal is approx the amount of sugarcane offloaded everyday at each of these sheds. About 1,000 kg juice is crushed out of the lot. As much as 100 kg is boiled at one go and it takes two hours to cook to perfection; to yield around 25 kg gur in one session which is sold at Rs 20 per kg. Nearly 10 such sessions are carried out from sunrise to sundown. This means 2,500 kg gur per day, per shed. Multiply that with a modest figure of 2,000 such sheds across the state and the amount of gur produced daily off the highways in Punjab would be a whooping 50,00,000 kg! And this is just a conservative estimate. The actual amount is anybody’s guess.

The status gur enjoys in Punjab is parallel only to Bengal where odes have been written in honour of the divinely delicious nolen/notun gur made from sap of the date palm. In Punjab the date-palm variety is unheard of and sugarcane rules the roost. Though unlike nolen gur which lends its delicate sweetness to a range of delectable mishti (sweetmeats) every winter, gur in Punjab is enjoyed in its robust form, at best finding itself in kheer (rice pudding), variety of chikki (winter snacks) or crushed and served on a roti (Indian wheat bread) with dollops of ghee. A favourite diet here is gur-channa (roasted black gram), believed to resist any season-related indisposition. Gur finds metaphoric reference in the region’s folktales and songs, and in recent years a top of the chart bhangra pop number, that had the nation swaying, was singer Malkit Singh’s version of ‘Gur nalon ishq mitha’ (Only love is sweeter than jaggery). That should explain it all.

Published in Jetwings

1 comment:

rubalsabode said...

Sweet one! lovely write-up.